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By 1977, with the abolition of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the Senate swore off creating future permanent joint legislative committees. It was still open to occasional temporary joint committees such as the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in 1993, modeled after the successful joint Congressional reform committees of 1945 and 1965.
Unlike those predecessor reform committees, however, the joint committee split in two when some House Democratic members demanded reform of the Senate filibuster rule. Consequently, the House and Senate contingents filed separate sets of final recommendations.
The House Rules Committee blocked floor consideration to avoid amendments changing committee jurisdictions. The Senate leadership likewise barred a floor vote on its bill. The joint committee’s work fell victim to committee turf sensitivities and interchamber animosities. So it was not surprising that even before members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction were appointed, some Members complained that their committee jurisdictions and prerogatives were being trampled.
While the new law allows committees to submit their recommendations for reductions to the joint committee by Oct. 14, the joint committee is under no obligation to accept any. And while the joint committee’s final recommendations are referred to the standing committees, they must then report them without change by Dec. 9, or be subject to discharge.
The joint committee bill will then be put to an up-or-down vote in both chambers no later than Dec. 23. Failure to adopt the joint committee’s bill will result in across-the-board spending cuts, with half from defense and half from domestic discretionary and mandatory spending.
The chance that anything will be reported by the joint committee and enacted into law will probably depend on a powerful combination of bipartisan leadership backing (including the president), favorable public opinion and more stock shocks. History is not on its side.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.